Permanent Losses and New Gains During the 1778 Valley Forge Encampment

Critical Thinking

February 15, 2024
by Gary Ecelbarger Also by this Author


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The traditional story of Valley Forge tells of an encampment where a weakened and stripped-down army of 11,000 men endured the hardships of a winter cantonment rife with depravations. Overcoming crippling deficiencies and benefitting from superb training by the first Inspector General of the United States, Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben, the army got healthy and campaign-ready, burgeoning with expertly prepared veterans and levies ready to march out of Valley Forge exactly six months after staggering in, 50 percent stronger in numbers and immeasurably more proficient in the art of war. This was the quintessential story of the phoenix rising from the ashes.

Two years ago, the Journal of the American Revolution published a detailed challenge to the centuries-old tradition that 11,000 men entered the camp in December. Using heretofore unpublished data from weekly troop-strength returns to buttress an ignored 1976 publication of monthly returns, the numerical strength of the encampment was recast to indicate that essentially the same number of men entered the camp on December 19 as existed in the camp six months later–each end of the time span secured by nearly 19,000 Continental infantry and artillery officers and rank & file soldiers. (At least 3,500 men were too infirm to march away in June and remained in the camp or in regional hospitals).[1]

As one of the co-authors of that published challenge, I can now confess that our analysis of twenty-seven troops strength returns could have been convincingly distilled down to a total of two of the weekly reports compiled during the encampment. Consider the following tally of infantry officers and men at Valley Forge at two points during the encampment, one “snapshot” obtained on December 22, 1777, three days after entry, and the other 167 days later (June 6, 1778), just twelve days before departure for the Monmouth Campaign.[2] Both returns include thirteen of the seventeen infantry brigades that encamped at Valley Forge at some point during the winter and spring season. Depending on the early versus later encampment period, this thirteen-brigade sample of field officers, staff officers, non-commissioned personnel, and rank & file infantry depict 87 percent of the December/January infantry that existed there and 77 percent of the May/June infantry at Valley Forge. These high percentages on both ends of the span of the cantonment allows this thirteen-brigade sample to be representative of the entire force. When viewing only those same thirteen infantry brigades that existed at Valley Forge three days after they entered it on December 22 and again on June 6, we see:

Thirteen Infantry Brigades December 22 June 6
Present, fit and unfit, plus on command 14, 427 17,860
Absent sick plus on furlough 4,853 1,573
Total soldiers in service (Row 1 + 2) 19,280 19,433


The mere difference of 153 soldiers in service in those thirteen brigades between December 22 and June 6 supports the published challenge in 2021. It must be recognized that thousands of soldiers that were counted on December 22 were not the same men that were logged six months later, even though they were regimented in the same thirteen brigades. Nevertheless, this sample strongly suggests that the total tallies of gains from new recruits merely balanced permanent losses during those six months at Valley Forge.

Although this confirming data weakens the “Phoenix Rising from the Ashes” metaphor for Valley Forge in terms of renewed numerical strength, it does not change the other aspect of that depiction: that the quality of the soldier that marched out of camp near the halfway point of 1778 was significantly improved over the soldiery that had limped in at the end of 1777. Furthermore, to date no known analysis of the pattern of gains and permanent losses at Valley Forge has been published to provide insight on the soldiery that entered on December 19-20, but did not remain for the entire encampment, as well as soldiers that joined Washington’s army during that encampment.


Twenty-three troop-strength returns of the Continental infantry and artillery at Valley Forge begun immediately after the December 31 monthly return through the June 13 weekly return were used for this study. The adjutant general’s template for these returns was a grid that included, at various times during the encampment, between twenty-five and thirty category columns. The grid had at least fifteen rows, one for each infantry brigade, with additional detached Continental units in camp included in separate rows. The artillery numbers were depicted on the same date on a different table. The right-hand side of the table included six to eight columns headed “Alterations since last return.” This section includes desertions, deaths, and discharges as well as new officers and privates who enlisted into each of the brigades or artillery companies. All weekly returns compiled for the 1778 Valley Forge encampment have survived for posterity, beginning with January 12. Although this start date suggests a return for January 5 is missing, the “Alterations” section on January 12 specified “since last return of December 31, 1777.” This indicates that the January 12 return was the first one tallied in 1778. The January 12 return was compiled by Col. Timothy Pickering, the adjutant general who departed shortly afterwards. His duties for the rest of the cantonment were taken over by the new adjutant general, Col. Alexander Scammell.

The tallies summarized in Table 1 do not include the final dozen days of 1777, nor the final five days at Valley Forge, from June 14 to June 18. Complete numbers are not available for either bookend set of days. Table 2 was created to depict those days based on the rates of gains and losses in the first two returns of 1778 to derive the final twelve days of December 1777, and from the first two June weekly returns to derive the alterations of the final five days of the encampment.

No monthly return was obtained for January; all alterations for this month are derived from the summation of the four weekly returns compiled during that first month of 1778. Complicating the analysis is that weekly returns include only troops encamped at Valley Forge while monthly returns are composites including other encampments, such as Brig. Gen. William Smallwood’s two Maryland brigades stationed at Wilmington, Delaware. Therefore, a tally of gains and permanent losses for brigades that are not stationed at Valley Forge are subtracted from the total in those respective monthly returns to keep consistent with January’s weekly tallies. Values within the column “Total Losses” in the table are obtained from adding the three categories of Permanent D’s: deaths, desertions, and discharges.

Table 1: Monthly Losses and Gains of Soldiers at Valley Forge (compiled from 1778 returns)

Month Deaths Desertions Discharges Total Losses Recruits
January[3] 250 230 525 1,005 380
February[4] 254 159 431 844 249
March[5] 440 204 271 915 297
April[6] 392 284 131 807 1,363
May[7] 387 302 210 899 1,522
June 1-13[8] 154 108 90 352 1,015
Total 1,877 1,287 1,658 4,822 4,826
Daily Average 11.4 7.8 10.1 29.3 29.4


Table 2: Monthly Losses and Gains of Soldiers at Valley Forge (Derived for December and June)

Month Deaths Desertions Discharges Total Losses Recruits
December 19-31 87 96 274 457 17
January 250 230 525 1,005 380
February 254 159 431 844 249
March 440 204 271 915 297
April 392 284 131 807 1,363
May 387 302 210 899 1,522
June 1-18 213 150 125 488 1,405
Total 2,023 1,425 1,967 5,415 5,233


Table 3: Cumulative Losses and Gains Beginning from January 1, 1778

Month Permanent Losses Recruits Net Difference
Through January 31 1,005 380 -625
Through February 29 1,849 629 -1,220
Through March 31 2,764 926 -1,838
Through April 30 3,571 2,289 -1,282
Through May 31 4,470 3,811 -659
Through June 13 4,822 4,826 +4


What do these numbers reveal?

The hard data organized in Table 1 indicates that almost the same number of men permanently departed the army (4,822) as new soldiers joined it (4,826) during the 165 tallied days of the 1778 encampment at Valley Forge (January 1 to June 13). Not to be overlooked is that one additional Continental infantry brigade was encamped at Valley Forge in June versus January; the two Maryland brigades entered the camp in June’s first week while the New Jersey brigade under Brig. Gen. William Maxwell had departed it late in May. Three independent regiments were also tallied in June that were encamped outside of Valley Forge during the winter and therefore were not present in January. There was no significant surplus in new recruits compared to permanent losses.  The larger force that existed in Valley Forge in June compared to January can simply be explained by one more infantry brigades and three independent regiments present in June, as well as troops returned from furlough and fewer men in hospitals.

New Arrivals

The depiction of the rising phoenix from the ashes at Valley Forge is partly based on the now-refuted claim of a significant gain of strength in numbers, but also to the quality of the troops that departed versus the ones that entered. The centuries-old and accepted story is that the men who marched away from Valley Forge to embark upon the Monmouth Campaign were a well trained and disciplined lot, beneficiaries of the training strategy of Major General von Steuben. Since the total number of troops in service is indiscernible between entry and exit force, were the men that left camp measurably better soldiers than those who came in?

Most of the levies that entered Valley Forge throughout the winter and spring were new soldiers, but there undoubtedly also were veterans of 1776 (and perhaps 1775) sprinkled into this pot of 1778 recruits. The veteran experience was essential, for enduring the crash, commotion and chaos of a battlefield indoctrinated soldiers to a degree that even the highest quality of training never could. The pattern of entry of new recruits into Valley Forge was also a critical factor. General von Steuben did not begin training until March 19, at the exact midpoint of the six-month encampment.[9] The cumulative totals of permanent losses in early April (see Table 2) exceeded 2,700, while new recruits numbered under 950. This 3.5:1 ratio of losses over gains suddenly reversed beginning later in April, suggesting the peak benefit of von Steuben training his model company–likely composed of 150 dedicated 1777 veterans of Brandywine, Germantown, and Whitemarsh and the Saratoga campaign for the New England troops–who in turn trained the rest of their veteran comrades and the 4,300 new recruits pouring in over the final eighty days of the encampment. This would be considered ideal if the new recruits entered in a steady stream and arrived early enough to be effectively trained.

This was not the case.  The weekly and monthly returns of May and the first two returns of June reveal that a flood of new recruits poured into Valley Forge during the final month of the cantonment. A study of five returns compiled from May 16 to June 13 reveals 2,189 new soldiers entered the encampment–with over 110 per day on average during the second week of June alone!  Could these raw men have possibly been trained in time to be considered quality soldiers at the time of departure from Valley Forge? Add to this the successful recruiting mission performed by Maxwell’s brigade, primarily in New Jersey after they were sent out of Valley Forge in May.  No fewer than 533 levies entered the New Jersey brigade between May 21 and June 14–equal to two new regiments.[10] Could that three-week flood of recruits have been trained well enough to maneuver and fight effectively in the Battle of Monmouth on June 28?

Altogether, an excess of 2,000 new soldiers estimated from this crop of 2,900 levies entering camp from May onward (Table 2) could not possibly be considered more capable of performing well in battle when compared to an equal number of departed veteran soldiers who had fought in the major battles of 1777 in Pennsylvania and New York, as well as a finite subset of these men that had also marched and fought in 1776.

This limits the benefits of Valley Forge interpreted as a training ground. No doubt the veterans of 1777 who entered camp and then departed it in June 1778 embarked upon the Monmouth Campaign as the most veteran and best trained soldiers thus far in the Revolutionary War. However, more than 2,700 departed veterans were replaced by nearly an equal number of soldiers with very limited training, if any.


Upwards of 2,000 officers and men were discharged from service at Valley Forge, 1,658 tallied on returns between January 1 and June 13, 1778. Except for an expected smattering of men dishonorably removed from service after court martial verdicts, the vast majority within this category of losses was from the completion of the soldiers’ designated service. This makes the number unusually high, given that the 19,000+ men who marched into Valley Forge on December 19-20 were mostly men who joined after March of 1777 when their enlistments were for either three years or the remainder of the war. Five out of every six discharges from Valley Forge could be pinpointed to the four Virginia brigades (1,371 officers and men; 83 percent of the total). The nearly 2,000 terminations of service at Valley Forge from a force that numbered approximately 3,000 the previous March, and considering the potential of hundreds more dying during the campaigns and battles throughout 1777, strongly suggests that by the late spring of 1778, very few soldiers in the Grand Army under George Washington could claim combined participation at Trenton in December 1776, Princeton in January 1777, and Monmouth in June 1778, notwithstanding the numerous claims on soldiers’ pension applications to the contrary.


George Washington lost the equivalent of six regiments that deserted the army during the Valley Forge encampment. Given the two periods of simultaneous collapses of the commissary and quartermaster departments–one during the first four days of the encampment and the other during the second week of February–the rate of desertions could have been greater. Nearly nine men deserted each day in early January, based on the weekly return. The rate dropped immediately after this and remained at a rate of about six men per day from the January 12 return through the end of March, remaining at its lowest during the month of February, surprisingly when the army endured its period of greatest sustained deprivation during the cantonment. Although the reason for the sudden decline and then sustained rate can never be convincingly explained, it cannot be ruled out that Washington’s decision to execute Virginia deserter John Reily on January 10 tamped down the desire to escape the service within the most suspect soldiers at the camp. Six hundred of these men, forty from each brigade, were hand-picked to witness Reily hang twice that morning (the rope snapped on the first attempt).

The desertion rate throughout April and May climbed to nearly ten men per day. The sudden increase dovetails with the huge influx of 2,900 new recruits throughout those two months. The decision by new soldiers that they would not risk their lives during the upcoming and inevitable seasons of battle may have induced them to escape along ever-improving roads leading out of camp as the weather warmed the region. (None of these new recruits was privy to the brutal execution of Private Reily, so they were not as dissuaded from desertion). A future study of muster rolls can confirm or disprove this association while additional comparisons of the desertion rate at Valley Forge compared to other encampments can clarify if this rate of departure was relatively high, low, or normal.


An absolute tally approaching 1,900 soldier deaths during 165 days of the encampment (Table 1) suggests an estimated total of over 2,000 when the eighteen unaccounted days are included (Table 2). This number also rose immediately after the departure when more than 3,000 sick soldiers were deemed unfit to take part in the Monmouth campaign. Certainly, scores of those soldiers succumbed to their illnesses throughout the last ten days of June and perhaps into July. Additionally, regiments that left Valley Forge, and were no longer tallied in the above tables, had soldiers who perished in June–ones that were likely sickened at Valley Forge. For example, the aforementioned New Jersey brigade of General Maxwell was not considered in the table during June when it was no longer encamped at Valley Forge. Between June 1 and June 25, thirteen New Jerseymen died and none of those deaths occurred in battle (Monmouth was fought on June 28). They most likely were among the 111 “sick absent” from the brigade tallied at the end-of-May return from Valley Forge that were left behind in a Pennsylvania hospital. Additionally, the dead included in summer reports for the entire army must have included the lagging effect of sick soldiers left at Valley Forge hospitals who lingered and died from their illnesses.

The rate of death from camp illnesses was remarkably heavy during the spring months of the encampment. An average of thirteen soldiers died each day in March through June compared to eight per day in January and February. The number of sick soldiers either present or absent totaled 5,000-6,500 throughout 1778 without a pattern of rise or fall through the progression of 1778. More men died during the month of March than in April, May, or June, suggesting the huge wave of levies had no correlation with the rate of death. To this point it is unclear if new recruits succumbed at the same rate as the veterans. Knowing that throughout the encampment, upwards of 7,000 more men toiled at Valley Forge each day than had been traditionally accepted, the winter and spring experience may appear less lethal in terms of percentage encamped (11 percent versus 17 percent); however, the absolute number of 2,000 deaths during a six-month encampment is twice the rate of all non-battle-related deaths of Revolutionary War soldiers during any other six-month span of the war.

This analysis includes only soldiers. There is no accounting for camp followers, family, teamsters, artisans, and artificers who toiled at Valley Forge daily and were subject to the same illnesses as the soldiers. It is feasible to estimate the number of deaths during the Valley Forge winter and spring of 1778 as around 2,500 men, women and children who resided within the “Log City” of more than 2,000 wooden huts encased within five square miles of the encampment, which for six months of the war existed as the third largest population center in the United States.

Did the Valley Forge experience improve the fighting ability of the infantry brigades in Washington’s army?

Most of the seventeen Continental infantry brigades, independent regiments, and artillery companies that were trained at Valley Forge (including the late-spring arriving Maryland brigades) could claim improved efficiency by expertly trained 1777 veterans, supported but not overwhelmed by the addition of new recruits to replace and enhance by numbers the permanent losses of those infantry brigades without compromising overall battle-tested experience.

Did George Washington command a stronger army leaving Valley Forge than the one that entered it?  General Anthony Wayne didn’t think so, based on the condition of his two Pennsylvania brigades. Citing a “Spirit of desertion–which has taken but too deep a Root–and is not yet subsided,” an abhorrent rate of resignation among officers, and all the sick and naked Pennsylvanians that he observed every day, Wayne confessed in mid-May that “altho’ our troops are daily improving in Military Discipline by very swift Degrees–yet we are much weaker [author’s emphasis] & worse Clothed than at the Close of the last Campaign.”[11] With only 1,300 officers and men fit for duty on June 6 compared to 1,754 on December 22, Wayne had ample reasons to voice his concern.

Washington was keenly aware of Wayne’s plight, but was focused on a worse nightmare in the four Virginia brigades of the army. Five out of every six tallied discharges from Valley Forge could be pinpointed to the four Virginia brigades that fought defensively at Brandywine and offensively at Germantown and Whitemarsh (Morgan’s riflemen) in 1777, with veterans who also fought at Trenton and Princeton before that. Every one of these four brigades was weakened during their sojourn at Valley Forge, primarily due to the end of terms of service of more than 1,371 veteran Virginians that winter. Nearly 950 additional Virginia troops deserted or perished at the cantonment. On December 22, 1777, at Valley Forge, 4,418 Virginians were present in camp; six months and three days later, only 3,777 Virginia noses could be counted.[12]

A composite of the monthly returns indicates that most of the 1,700 Virginians who entered Valley Forge in 1778 as new troops did so before May, which meant these 1,258 recruits were adequately and repeatedly trained (perhaps 400 later arrivals were not), yet all of them most certainly weakened each of the four brigades their regiments belonged to because their training was unlikely to offset the battle-tested experience of the Virginians discharged from service within those brigades. Assuming a nearly equal number of deaths and desertions between the recruits and remaining veterans, then more than a quarter of the 3,777 Virginians were preparing to fight in their first battle after leaving Valley Forge, leaving less than 2,500 veterans in the field in the third week of June, barely half the number of Virginia veterans that were ensconced on the hills of Whitemarsh six months before. Valley Forge did not measurably strengthen these Virginia regiments.

Brigadier General James Mitchell Varnum’s brigade suffered in similar fashion to Wayne’s Pennsylvanians and the Virginia brigades; they were reduced numerically and by experience with mass discharges of veterans early in the winter season that were not equally offset by new recruits into that brigade. Thus, seven brigades were numerically weakened by the Valley Forge experience, losing experienced officers and veteran privates at a greater rate than levies could offset. These seven brigades were 40 percent of the infantry in Washington’s Grand Army.


Valley Forge was the first army-constructed winter cantonment in the history of the United States. The absolute numbers of permanent losses of troops through death, desertions, and discharges averaged nearly thirty men per day throughout the entire span of the encampment. This was nearly equally offset by an influx of levies, some undoubtedly with previous battle and campaign experience but most serving their country as soldiers for the first time. Thus, the absolute numbers of soldiers were virtually unaltered between the start of the encampment and its closure six months later, although more than 4,500 new faces replaced departed ones. Collectively, veterans of 1777 who embarked upon the Monmouth campaign benefited from the Valley Forge experience through training by Baron von Steuben, the comradery of enduring hardships, and a general “hardening” in each healthy soldier by withstanding depravations at several points that winter; however, based on their very late arrival to camp, more than 2,000 new recruits received minimal and perhaps insufficient training by the time the army marched out of the cantonment. Overall, Washington’s army that fought the Battle of Monmouth nine days after marching away from its winter encampment was better trained than the larger and more experienced army that had held its ground at Whitemarsh two weeks before Valley Forge. It nonetheless cannot be overlooked that seven out of seventeen infantry brigades were demonstrably weakened numerically as well as by a dearth of campaign and battle instincts acquired during the 1777 campaigns that the Valley Forge experience could not possibly simulate.


[1]Michael C. Harris and Gary Ecelbarger, “A Reconsideration of Continental Army Numerical Strength at Valley Forge,” Journal of the American Revolution, May 18, 2021,

[2]Timothy Pickering, “A General Return of the Continental Troops under the Command of His Excellency, General Washington, encamped at the Valley Forge, December 22, 1777,”; Alexander Scammell, “A General Return of the Continental Troops under the Command of His Excellency, General Washington,” June 6, 1778,

[3]Row values obtained from cumulative tallies of four weekly returns: January 12, 1778,; January 19, 1778,; January 24, 1778,; and January 31, 1778,

[4]Monthly return for February, February 29, 1778,

[5]Monthly return for March, March 31, 1778,

[6]Monthly return for April, May 2, 1778,

[7]Monthly return for May, May 31, 1778,

[8]Weekly return, June 6, 1778,; Weekly return, June 13, 1778,

[9]Paul Lockhart, The Drillmaster of Valley Forge: The Baron de Steuben and the Making of the American Army (New York: Smithsonian Books, 2008), 95.

[10]“New Jersey Brigade Tally for Joining from May to August 1778,”

[11]Anthony Wayne to Richard Peters, May 13, 1778, in Charles J. Stille, Major-General Anthony Wayne and the Pennsylvania Line in the Continental Army (Philadelphia: J. P. Lippincott, 1893), 138.

[12]Ibid.; weekly return, December 22, 1777,

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